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“It’s not about diet, it’s about portion control” – Valuing Certificates, Diplomas, and Awards as core business

  • 20 February 2024
  • By Richard Courtney
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Dr Richard A Courtney, Head of the Department of Business, Entrepreneurship, & Finance at the Royal Docks School of Business & Law, University of East London.

Recently, I visited a Chinese restaurant in The Netherlands. As usual, we ordered a 7-dish smorgasbord of carbs and protein alongside a guiltily ordered vegetable dish. Upon ordering, the waiter explained that we had ordered way too much and recommended that we minimise our order to only 3 dishes. We thanked him and very much enjoyed the meal before tipping generously.

It’s rare to receive selfless advice from someone whose job it is to sell. Our jobs in HEIs are not to sell, but to educate, so why do we continue to insist that consumers buy the full product, when in fact they may only need a portion of the offer?

But do we offer smaller portions in higher education? Of course we do, but we de-value them as consolation prizes; e.g. the ‘could just about write their name’ attitude that surrounds Undergraduate Certificates, Certificates of Higher Education, or even Diplomas of Higher Education at Level 5. However, for many students these are good outcomes that can recognise learning at Levels, 3, 4 and 5 and provide indication of ability and competence for potential employers. These are incredibly powerful when mapped alongside industry-recognised qualifications from accreditation bodies, and even more so when they map to Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education IfATE standards.

These are our potential products; therefore, it is our responsibility to promote their value to potential students rather than measure their value against archaic and elitist academic standards. However, as per Marginson (2024) our aspirations are continually fixated on the notion that a university degree is the only true route to educational transformation due to its long-term immersion in knowledge. This obsession also fixes expectations at the upper end of practicality for many who enter higher education, especially from challenging backgrounds.

How did I challenge my valuation of Continuing Education? Well, the story begins with two students. One mature student had been stuck at Level 4 for four years and had not really achieved the success to convincingly continue to Level 5. This was coupled with very sketchy ideas about their potential career trajectory upon graduation. Despite this, they were completely fixated on achieving a degree. The other student was also a mature student but had been employed in a low-skilled job during Level 4 and based on their Level 5 work-based learning year gained a high-skill professional job and left the course.

So I had a student who had spent all their student finance on Level 4 with little definitive outcome and a student who had completed Level 5 and had achieved a positive graduate outcome without doing the full degree. Had we validated a named exit award for Level 4, the first student could have left at Level 4 and gained a job relative to that level of study without the social and peer pressure to continue their studies for no clear reason.

It felt morally wrong to be pushing a student to continue despite all the signals that they didn’t really need it – much like the 7 courses we ordered in the Chinese – but I had no way to offer the ethical choice of ordering less. Analogously, I couldn’t provide a named foundation degree to the latter student to recognise their learning. Their self-attained graduate outcome, a highly-skilled professional occupation, was beyond that of some Level 6 graduates.

Therefore, rather than being a consolation prize, the ‘early exit’ award should be re-valued in higher education institutions as an achievement with its own specific learning purpose and outcomes. It is like ordering the two-course special and leaving before dessert; maybe you’ll come back later for dessert, or possibly go somewhere else to enjoy a different ambience altogether. (The lead-in to debates around the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) will be the subject of a future HEPI blog.)

In much practice across the sector, these outcomes are packaged as ‘continuing education’, which are aimed at raising aspirations for further study. As we move beyond a discourse on aspiration to one of expectation, as John Blake would argue, we need to mainstream continuing education to challenge the academic conventional moral valuation of degrees and ensure these are replaced with a progressive view of credit value.

To make this challenge, we need to reset expectations and align them with certificates, diplomas, and awards to value smaller chunks of learning as potential outcomes in and of themselves. Starting points matter and the value one attaches to success is and should be dependent upon one’s starting expectations rather than meeting outmoded and often inappropriate aspirations for degree outcomes. For those students from disadvantaged backgrounds and with challenging current life circumstances, attaining a Certificate of Higher Education is a commendable outcome. If we named these and actively recruited to them, instead of automatic recruitment to full undergraduate study or a ‘foundation’ entry route, we would offer a more realistic and ethical choice for future learners to study whilst working, caring, or simply doing other things.

There are further potentially positive impacts on our institutions too, including greater control over retention and continuation, the opportunity to explore different financial modelling that currently rests less on 3-year student numbers; and pursuing strategic projects that provide genuine variety through business development that removes the risk of standard tuition fees being our largest source of income.

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1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    A very refreshing and sensible article. In the interest of the student, we should abolish the notion of the norm for all students is a 3 year undergraduate degree and end the campaign of Degrees for All along with the misguided search for the unholy grail of perpetual Widening Access.

    The aim of education is to guide students to their individual level of potential and encourage all of them to initially aim for one of the many level 3 qualifications that aligns with their ability and ambitions by the age of 18. Achievement should be recognised and accepted as sufficient success.

    For those able and willing to achieve more, they should be encouraged to climb further on the ladder to completing qualifications at levels 4, 5, 6 and beyond and move into jobs and professions that match their ability, preferences and ambitions. Each person has their own level of “enough”. Were we to accept that this is natural and sensible and “doing one’s best” should be duly rewarded, this might lead to improved wellness and better mental health and feelings of satisfaction and achievement for many more people.

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